"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" Shows Why We Can't Have Nice Things

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The year of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural, director Frank Capra—not yet renowned as the inventor of "Capracorn"—made a racy, exotic movie called The Bitter Tea of General Yen, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a virtuous Yankee missionary who falls for a Chinese warlord. Because things don't end well for him, wags promptly retitled it The Bitter Yen of General Tea. But to understand why today's GOP is known in my household as "The Bitter Tea Party of Frank Capra," you only need to recall a much more influential film of his.

I mean, of course, 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, maybe the only "political" movie Americans have ever truly loved. Ted Cruz's one-man show this week was blatantly indebted to its celebrated climax: hoarse, beleaguered Jimmy Stewart on the Senate floor, fighting the good fight with only his frayed vocal chords keeping evil's triumph at bay. But was Cruz's unofficial remake really such a travesty? Afraid not, folks. Not only this week but in general, he and his intransigent, shutdown-threatening ilk are a perfect illustration of what Mr. Smith's righteous conception of politics looks like when it's transposed to real life.

The movie version is a lot more attractive, since it's marvelous (and far from unsophisticated) hokum. Masterfully crafted, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington also boasts an almost perfect Golden Age of Hollywood cast, from Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains all the way down to silent-era cowboy actor Harry Carey, Sr., as the homespun, courtly Veep. I've seen it more times than I can count, and the movie lover in me is always delighted. If the democracy lover keeps grumbling that Mr. Smith is one of the more pernicious movies my compatriots have ever doted on, oh, well: You can't have everything.

In case you need a plot refresher, Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, an idealistic hayseed who's appointed to a Senate seat by fluke. He's expected to be an innocuous seat-warmer, and his naïveté soon has the cynical Washington establishment in stitches. But then Smith discovers that Joe Paine (Rains), his state's senior senator—a man he was raised to revere—has fallen prey to the capital's wicked ways and is corrupt up to his eyeballs. 

When Paine frames Smith in turn as a profiteer and the newcomer is on the verge of being expelled, our hero takes to the Senate floor to spout valiant gibberish about American ideals—"Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome," and so on—until popular sympathy shifts his way and a guilt-riddled Paine confesses all. Never mind that prescriptions for what ails us as nonspecific as “Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome" predict a fine future for Mr. Smith as a demagogue if not worse.

The movie is often hailed as a tribute to democracy, but it sure isn't a tribute to democracy as a functioning or even valid process. As I've pointed out more than once in print, the hero isn't elected, casts no votes, passes no legislation, and prevails via the most undemocratic of Senate tactics: a filibuster. Paine's convenient crisis of conscience aside, Smith wins due to a successful appeal to public hysteria. That's never a vice in Capra's world, so long as it's backing the same horse the director is.

It's a very durable daydream. Virtually every successful political comedy since Mr. Smith has borrowed its feel-good but not think-good template, featuring an innocent "average" citizen who gets put in power by mistake and sets everything to rights by circumventing how the system usually works. This usually includes shaming the creepy politicos who dicker and broker in their clubby way instead of solving every problem by whooping it up for our founding ideals.

Naturally, unlike the Tea Party version, this kind of "political" movie prospers by omitting any discernible ideology. The contest is always between guileless virtue and the intrinsic corruption of business as usual. But since that invariably translates as mistrust of government—the bumpkin hero may marvel at his first sight of the Capitol or White House, but he's got no use for the practical endeavors they were built to serve—the fantasy is a right-wing one by default.

However innocuously, it's also messianic, feeding a perennially restless popular craving for a savior who can cut the Gordian knot of business as usual. Fill in Ross Perot, Sarah Palin—patently a religious figure, not a political one, to her fans—and now Ted Cruz. To be fair, the Obama of 2008 benefited from his own version of the Mr. Smith mystique. But for both better and worse, his administration is proof that eloquence is not a policy.

As for Cruz, few people would claim that he looks much like Jimmy Stewart. Instead, he looks ideally like what Ted Cruz should look like. If he looked any more like Ted Cruz than he does, he wouldn't be in the Senate; he'd be in Ratatouille. But whether you like it or not, he's our foremost current example of a real-life Mr. Smith—and that ought to tell you how destructive real-life Mr. Smiths can be.

Every Tea Partier in Congress must see him or herself in the identical light. Rejecting compromise, untainted by practicality, they're agents of pure American idealism. Would saintly Jefferson Smith hold the whole government hostage to thwart a president he believed was leading us to wrack and ruin? Of course he would. So long as we were in a movie theater, we'd cheer him for it.

For that matter, how would you like to try telling Jefferson Smith that, say, refusing to raise the debt ceiling would do untold damage, considering his higher calling to restore us to our senses? I wouldn't. As for his summons to "get up there with that lady that's on top of the Capitol dome," it's so stirring that if Cruz had used it I'd be halfway to a genuinely terrific view of the Mall before I noticed Madame's unfortunate resemblance to Michele Bachmann. The truth is, if we'd all grown up cherishing The Bitter Tea of General Yen instead, we might be better off. No one could possibly mistake that movie for a user's guide to democracy.

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